Serving Demeter

My Greek neighbor Marcella is a veritable goddess of the garden. Anything she plants takes root and thrives, even in placements my gardening guides and nursery advisors admonish against. In her garden, tomatoes grow in the shade, flowers bloom while all crowded into a corner together, and her trees continue to regrow and fruit no matter how severely she cuts them down in the fall. She has a tiny vineyard which is expanding itself, with no help from her; an orchard of oranges, tangerines, (two kinds of) lemons, kumquats, grapefruits and cherries; a fabulous flower farm; and a variety of plants and bushes I don’t understand, all in the space of a backyard smaller than mine. To my over-read surprise, she thinks nothing of the weeds that encroach and threaten her vegetables: heck, if she feels like it she’ll turn them into a salad.

This year, when she mentioned she needed someone to take care of her plants while she was out of town for a month, I volunteered to do it in exchange for being able to glean her garden’s copious summer produce. Normally, she uses cookies to bribe a French Lebanese neighbor who shares the inscrutable Mediterranean gardening know-how to do the job. She agreed to let me do the watering this year, but I think we’re both a bit nervous about how the plants will pull through, given my long history of plant abuse, which I’m only beginning to overcome.

This year, to my surprise, my own little vegetable garden is doing quite well. I actually ended up with a glut of pumpkin plants, though it’s really Neil’s doing, not mine. He built me a giant pumpkin-growing contraption, and to our mutual surprise, it really worked. Marcella gave me some new tomato plants from her garden, and I showed them to her as they were on the verge of dying, just like the tomato plants she’d given me the year before. She watered them once, and they’ve been thriving since. The rest of my plants, like lettuce, green onions, peppers, a watermelon plant, and a late-blooming but proliferate heirloom broccoli plant, are also growing, which is pretty good. On the other hand, I dug up some lavender plants I loathed and gave them to Marcella, but they’d been neglected so brutally for so long, and dug up with so little care, that even she couldn’t save them. I think that’s when she started to get really worried about my ability to keep her plants alive.

During the week before she left, Marcella showed me how to water her garden, but I don’t think she was comfortable trusting me with the hose. I vaguely got the idea that some plants need a lot of water every day; some plants need some water once a week; the trees need a good soaking every two weeks; and don’t soak that plant, because its pot has no hole and it will drown. Now I sneak in every day or so, grab a bunch of fruit and water everything. I feel like I’m committing a sin against nature just being there, and that the plants resent having me, instead of Marcella, doing the watering duty. The roses actually seem to be reaching out in order to scratch me up, and one exotic flower is already looking depressed. Oh, please, plants, don’t die!

In the hope of making up for any mishaps, I planted some of my extra pumpkin plants in the section where Marcella wanted to put the lavender plants, and I may move over the pumpkin growing contraption to give them an extra chance at life. And the French Lebanese woman is coming to take over from me during the last week of Marcella’s absence so all may end well, even if in a deus ex machina way. And, well, in the meantime, I’m well set with fresh oranges, tangerines, cherries, lemons,and tomatoes.

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